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Immigration: Did Senators Get It Right?


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. An estimated 11 million people live in the U.S. without documentation. During the 2012 election, voters urged both major political parties to do something about what's often called our broken immigration system.

In a moment we'll hear about African-born immigrants who often feel they're overlooked in the immigration debate. But first we take a closer look at new plans to overhaul the national system. A bipartisan group of senators released immigration proposals this week and President Obama spoke about the issue in Las Vegas yesterday.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So at this moment it looks like there's a genuine desire to get this done soon. And that's very encouraging. But this time action must follow. We can't allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate. We've been debating this a very long time. So it's not as if we don't know technically what needs to get done.

HEADLEE: Joining us to talk about what needs to get done and what is likely to get done, Doris Meissner. She's director of U.S. immigration policy at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. She also served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration. Welcome.


HEADLEE: So as the president just mentioned, immigration reform has been bandied around on Capitol Hill for a very long time. We now have this proposal from the Gang of Eight senators and from the president. How are these proposals different from the one that we saw in 2007 under President Bush's administration?

MEISSNER: The new thing about the Gang of Eight is the gang of eight. The new thing is that in fact there are a group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, who are talking and who have come up with a set of ideas that they are willing to put their reputations and their efforts behind.

And the significant thing about that set of ideas that they've now put on the table - they're calling it their bipartisan framework - the significant thing about the framework, in addition to the fact that they've come together around it, it is the fact, I think, that on the Republican side, Republican leaders are signing on to the idea of a legalization program that includes ultimately a path to citizenship.

That is a break or a change from the past. Senator McCain is a leader in all of this and he was part of those kinds of discussions that endorsed a comprehensive approach in 2006 and 2007. But for six years in the intervening period we have not had any kind of real willingness on the Republican side to talk about a comprehensive approach that includes a robust legalization program.

HEADLEE: Which implies that this perhaps could be a proposal that could get done? Is that what you're saying? I mean, is that what makes it most important? That this could actually pass?

MEISSNER: That is absolutely what makes it most important. As has just been reported in the president's remarks, the issues themselves have been around for a long time and the approach as to how you would solve the issues are not very new. They're not new at all. But the real difference here is the politics. The real problem and the stalemate has been a political stalemate. So this is breaking through that and it is a very strong starting point.

Because it is a comprehensive approach and it is an approach that ultimately includes this legalization piece that the Republican Party has been so opposed to for so many years.

HEADLEE: I hate to be cynical about it, but I have to imagine that this is at least mostly influenced - this change of attitude is influenced by the recent election and the shifting demographics in the country, that they're looking at a Latino population whose vote they did not earn in the past election.

MEISSNER: Absolutely. And I wouldn't call that cynical. I would call that waking up and smelling the coffee. The fact of the matter is that this change in our demographics has been talked about and reported endlessly, but it took this election to seem to make that be real and have that break through to a range of political leaders. But particularly when the Republican Party has seen how badly it lost based on that change, this is looking at reality.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about the framework itself. The president says we know what needs to be done now. We just need to get it done. Does this framework accomplish what he's talking about? Is it what needs to get done?

MEISSNER: Well, of course this is still very general.


MEISSNER: This is still very much at the level of themes and core ideas. But that's where you have to start. And if you look at what the bipartisan framework puts on the table and then you look at what the president put on the table after his speech, there is an enormous convergence or similarity.

Now, there are going to be difficulties in the details, but they are starting with a comprehensive approach. And if they can work out the difficulties and the tensions, you know, within those issues, we'd have something that could happen here.

HEADLEE: I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about renewed federal efforts toward comprehensive immigration reform. My guest is Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute and a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Well, as you mentioned, there are some crossover between the senators' plan and the president's plan and one of them is the pathway for legalization.

But the Senate plan calls for the border to be secure before that process begins. What exactly does that mean and how insecure is our border?

MEISSNER: Well, we don't know exactly what that means. But I think the important thing about the Senate plan is that in the past this idea that the border has to be secure before we can do anything else really did hold up everything else. What they're saying now is that they want to be certain that the border is secure and that enforcement is in place, but that while that process of determining border security is underway, simultaneously they will allow for a registration and what they call a probationary legal status program to go into place for the unauthorized population. They then say...

HEADLEE: If they pay these fines.

MEISSNER: Of course. Pay fines, have a criminal background check and so on, which is absolutely part of anybody's plan. What they are saying is that they would hinge the ability of those people who get a probationary legal status, their ability to get a green card in the future would hinge on the determination of adequate border security. That is a significant shift.

HEADLEE: But that could be a moving target.

MEISSNER: Of course it could be a moving target. But this is a very important shift from where people in the Republican Party and people that have been against immigration reform have been in the past. So you do have a parallel set of circumstances underway. The issue of border security, of course, not only is it a moving target, nobody has determined how you would determine whether border security is adequate.

But it's a different discussion to be discussing how you measure that and how you determine that than what we've been hearing over the past five, seven, eight years, which is border control, border security, the borders are out of control.

HEADLEE: Electrified fences. Right.

MEISSNER: Exactly. This has shifted the ground. And so what you can envision, if they are able to go forward and enact legislation patterned on this formula that they're putting down, is a legal status program beginning to be implemented at the same time as the border security discussion continues.

HEADLEE: Let me ask you a little bit about the term amnesty. Because of this plan in the Gang of Eight's proposal to allow a pathway to citizenship, some conservatives are calling that amnesty. And that wasn't what I thought the term amnesty meant. So could you kind of explain what amnesty is and whether or not that applies to either of these proposals - the president's or the senators'?

MEISSNER: Well, so much of this is terminology and what words mean to you. When politicians talk about amnesty and no amnesty, what they're saying, I believe, is that the connotation of amnesty is no responsibility. You're simply forgiven and life goes on.

What people who are talking about legalization and particularly earned legalization, which is the important term that is being used in the bipartisan framework, as well as by the president, is that, OK, you recognize that, yes, these people have violated the law, yes, there is responsibility that must be taken by the individuals, but also by the society overall, which has allowed this to come to this point, and therefore people should have the opportunity, because they have been contributing, to earn their way toward a legal status over time, beginning with a - in the case of the bipartisan framework - a probationary legal status.

In the president's plan, he calls it a provisional legal status. There isn't too much difference between those terms, but that that would involve registering with the government, having a background check to be certain that you're not a criminal or have any other criminal issues, and then paying a fine, which you could think of as something like a plea bargain or an agreement to having violated the law, and then that there be a demonstration over time that you're working and contributing and paying your taxes and paying back taxes.

So that earning your way toward legal status that then would allow you to be eligible for a green card, that then would allow you to be eligible to apply for citizenship, that is not amnesty. In other words, the amnesty is simply you're forgiven, life goes on. And that is not what's being talked about here and that's what people are using to argue against this simplistic notion, no amnesty.

HEADLEE: So you have been working in this field, which I can only imagine has been very frustrating, for a very long time. Dare I say, Doris Meissner, that at this point you're hopeful we'll get real immigration reform?

MEISSNER: You can say that I am hopeful, or cautiously optimistic. I do not think that this will be easy. The devil is always in the details. Agreements can break down, but the stars are aligned right now in a way that hasn't been the case for at least six years and possibly as much as a decade or more. So there is a possibility and these are the beginnings of the kinds of discussions and compromises that could lead us out of this woods that we're in.

HEADLEE: Well, if Doris Meissner is cautiously optimistic, I guess I can be too. A former official with the I.N.S., a senior fellow and director of U.S. Immigration Policy at the Migration Policy Institute, she joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Doris Meissner, thank you so much.

MEISSNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.